Building consensus on the future of healthcare

Change is the word for candidates on both sides of the aisle during this campaign season. And in debates, speeches and town hall meetings across the country, candidates are setting their sights on an area long overdue for change: our nation’s broken healthcare system.

The current system is in crisis. Record numbers of Americans do not have coverage. An ever-growing number have coverage that is not meeting their needs when serious or chronic illness strikes. Many more are just a rate increase away from losing what coverage they do have.

Last year, 300 million Americans spent $2.2 trillion on healthcare. That’s $7,000 for every man, woman and child in the nation — and still 46.5 million Americans are living without coverage. With business owners increasingly unable to afford the skyrocketing cost of insuring their employees, the percentage of Americans covered by employer-based health insurance has dropped between 2005 and 2006 to just above 60 percent — the lowest level since the system was put in place in 1945. During that same time period, the Census Bureau reports that 2.2 million people lost their health insurance. If trends continue, employer-based coverage will continue to melt away.

While many governors and state legislators have battled courageously to fix healthcare, the truth is (as California showed last week), they can’t do it on their own. The policies driving our broken healthcare system, especially skyrocketing costs, are the result of federal decisions that are outside the authority of the states. Specifically, those federal judgments include our federal tax code, the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (ERISA) and the two major federal health entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid. If health reform is going to happen, serious action needs to take place at the federal level.

In the Senate, 12 senators — six Democrats and six Republicans — have come together to sponsor a solution to the healthcare crisis. The first bipartisan, comprehensive health reform effort in decades, the Healthy Americans Act would ensure that all Americans, other than those on Medicare or in the military, have private healthcare choices. Our proposal has tough cost-containment provisions and measures that slash health administrative costs to such an extent that the independent policy analysis organization Lewin Group has written that our bill will save almost $1.5 trillion in health spending in the next decade. Our legislation restructures the current set of regressive and inefficient healthcare tax breaks, ensuring that all Americans can afford the essentials of private healthcare coverage. The cost? No more than America spends today.

This legislation will provide universal healthcare coverage through a reformed marketplace — a perfect marriage of both Democratic and Republican ideals.

While some say it can’t be done, change is in the air. Stakeholders who historically resisted or fought the idea of major change are now lending their voices to the call for fundamental change and universal coverage. For example, business and labor leaders, who fought bitterly over healthcare reform during the Clinton years, have been outspoken in their support of our efforts.

As we discuss this proposal with constituents in our home states one thing is clear: People believe the healthcare system is broken and they expect Democrats and Republicans to work together with our new president to overhaul it.  This proposal is a bipartisan step in the right direction.

The seeds of change are being planted.   Americans expect 2009 to be an important year in the history of America’s health care system.  We challenge our colleagues — on both sides of the aisle — to put aside partisan politics and work with us as we build consensus on the future direction of America’s healthcare system.  Americans can’t afford to wait any longer.

Wyden is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and Bennett is the ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.